David Gillespie —
You may recall the main villain in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church story: Dylann Roof,a young Columbia, South Carolina area white supremacist, intelligent but a ninth grade drop-out. Using a Glock .45 caliber pistol purchased for his 21st birthday, Roof murdered nine African American parishioners at the Charleston church on June 17, 2015. His motive was to divide racially, to foment a race war, which he expected whites would win.
Now in jail and facing state capital and federal hate crimes charges, he has (inexplicably) left up a website he launched just weeks before those murders (LastRhodesian.net). It bears an array of pictures he took (some very graphic), along with his 2,444 word racist manifesto.
Clementa Pinckney, one of Roof’s victims, was both Emanuel’s pastor and a SC state Senator. The murdered nine ranged in age from 26 to 87. They all were people of accomplishment or promise.
But this is about heroes, not villains. People need heroes when mass tragedies occur, and there were heroes aplenty in the wake of those June 17 murders.
One was Debbie Dills, a resident of Gastonia, a North Carolina town 225 miles from Charleston. Heading to work the morning of June 18, Dills spotted a vehicle she thought looked like the picture of Roof’s car she had seen in morning news reports. Bravely pursuing for 35 miles, she called her boss, who contacted the police. In under an hour Roof was in custody awaiting return to Charleston. Dills said that “I had been praying for these (Emanuel) people on my way to work. I was in the right place at the right time that God puts you.”
Herb Silverman did not use “God” terms to describe his grief after the massacre. The founder of Secular Humanists of America, Silverman is one of the most vocal and influential atheist spokespeople in the country. A retired College of Charleston math professor, Silverman lives just three blocks from Emanuel Church. Responding to his call, SC secular humanists immediately launched their Mother Emanuel Hope Fund.
On Thursday morning after the Wednesday night murders, Silverman joined an overflowing assembly of white and black mourners at a memorial service at another Charleston AME church. Writing for the Huffington Post just two days after the massacre, Silverman wrote that at the service he had thought of Melanie’s anti-war song “Lay Down” and the line “Some came to sing, some came to pray, some came to keep the dark away.” He had come, he wrote, “to keep the dark away by showing support for a beleaguered African American community.”
Ordinary folks did extraordinary things in the tragedy’s aftermath. A girl, age seven, drew a picture of Emanuel church with nine angels ascending from its steeple. It quickly went viral, appearing on social media, shop windows, and tee shirts. So did a drawing by Charleston graphic artist Gil Shuler. That featured the blue South Carolina state flag with nine doves arising from its palmetto branches.
Bells pealed in churches across South Carolina the first Sunday after the Emanuel murders. That night 15,000 people, black and white, packed the lanes linking Charleston with suburban Mount Pleasant on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge. Their message to Roof was that he had failed. Instead of dividing he had made South Carolinians one.
Hundreds of people brought flowers, so many that they eventually extended for a full block in front of the church. One day a young white mother with three tiny children approached that flowery shrine. Each carried a modest bouquet. The young family knelt and said a prayer. Then, standing up, they carefully placed their flowers and walked away.
Many state media people spoke out courageously after the murders. Speak-truth-to-power editors like Larry Franklin of the weekly Clinton Chronicle. People like the Sumter Item’s Graham Osteen, who editorialized four days after the murders that if now the South Carolina legislature failed to take down the Confederate flag “we might as well replace the palmetto tree on the proper state flag—the beautiful blue one—with a swastika.”
People worldwide reacted to a remarkable picture taken at the SC Statehouse last July 18. Its power lay in its visual irony. A pudgy white racist, member of a Tarheel KKK group there to protest the flag decision, had been overtaken by Columbia’s sweltering heat. The photo showed a black police officer (Leroy Smith, state Public Safety director) coming to his aid, walking him to shade and a drink of water.
Seeking to console, Governor Nikki Haley brought her children along when she went to church at Mother Emanuel the first Sunday after the murders. She then traveled back and forth between Columbia and Charleston, attending the funerals of all nine Emanuel murder victims.
Five days after the massacre, Haley and a bipartisan group of political leaders declared their commitment to bring down the Confederate flag flying on the Statehouse grounds. The next day Paul Thurmond, segregationist Strom Thurmond’s last-born child, addressed his fellow Senators. Critically analyzing Southern heritage claims, he implored them to remove “this symbol of racism and bigotry from the Statehouse.”
The necessary enabling legislation had overwhelmingly passed both chambers by July 9, and the flag came down the next day. Nothing in American policy-making happens that fast, certainly not something as controversial and significant as that.
Over the January 29-31, 2016 weekend, over 1,300 South Carolina congregations of several faiths and many denominations observed Stand Up Sunday (also known as Stand Up For the Nine Sunday). Organized by Gun Sense South Carolina, it was a powerful demand from below for closing what has come to be (inaccurately) called the Charleston Loophole by returning to mandated background checks for all American gun purchases.
Many people do deserve accolades for what has happened since June 17, 2015. But the principal heroes are Mother Emanuel’s parishioners who lost beloved family members in Roof’s homicidal act.
Something remarkable began to roll out on Friday following the Wednesday murders. It happened at Dylann Roof’s mandated appearance to face state murder charges. Members of the murder victims’ families attended and used their right to address the perpetrator. What crossed their lips was not hatred or vengeance but the will to forgive. “You, you’ve taken my loved one and I’ll never see her again. But I forgive you. And I ask you to confess to God and ask God’s forgiveness.”
That was the gist of what they said, one-by-one, and they said it again on the last day of July, when Roof appeared to confront federal charges. Forgiveness at such a time. It was amazing. David MacDougall, a Charleston reporter, wrote that forgiveness had not for years figured so prominently in a news story like this. It was a message reported and heard around the world.
Folks traveling out of Charleston on I 26 now come across a billboard bearing a message from the people of Mother Emanuel. It is the church’s expression of gratitude to the larger community. Although I feel pride whenever I see it, I also think it misses the point.
In Charleston to give the eulogy for Senator/Pastor Clementa Pinckney, President Obama had spoken of (and sung) “Amazing Grace.” He surely was thinking of the forgiving grace of many of Emanuel’s people. That was the spirit that defeated Roof and the motive underlying his heinous crime. Far from dividing, that will to forgive had blurred racial dividing lines and brought people closer together. So thanks for the thanks, Emanuel folks; but all South Carolinians and people far beyond owe you the debt of gratitude.
*An earlier version of this article first appeared in the May 18, 2016 edition of the Clinton (SC) Chronicle.